“That’s something no one can take away from you!” said the tall man, whose large hazel eyes were glistening with tears. He bent over slightly and gripped my hand so firmly that I couldn’t help wincing. “Oh, sorry, I mustn’t hurt those valuable hands!” he added and relaxed his grip, looking down at my hand as if he expected it to have extra fingers or other strange properties.
There was still a long line of people who had come backstage to greet me after my performance, but he lingered for a moment longer. It was intermission, and the musicians of Michigan’s Pontiac Oakland Symphony—the men in tails and the women in black gowns—were milling around, playing their warm-up scales and snatches of music for the second half of the program. I could hear somebody humming a melody from the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto, which we’d just played. The year was 1955. I was twenty-one, and felt on top of the world.
There’s nothing quite like the afterglow of performance. You work yourself up to a nervous pitch beforehand; you walk on stage with exaggerated calm; you bow and smile to the audience, trying to keep your hands from shaking as you begin. You hear the sound as if it’s coming from somewhere else, as if it’s not really connected with your hands on the keyboard.
But gradually the music takes over, and the nervousness is transformed into excitement. It heightens everything you want to express about the music embedded so deep within your being; and suddenly you feel that you’re one with the music and the audience. There’s nothing else in the world but that current from the source to the sound and back, a pulsing current that seems to stretch toward eternity. That’s what your entire life is about. You’ve always known that, but you know it more clearly at such moments.
The man with the hazel eyes was right, I had thought, as he walked away. Usually backstage comments don’t register. I’m too high after the performance. I remember faces and expressions and handclasps and embraces, but words usually get lost in the music I’ve just played. I remembered that comment, though. It was a little like a reassurance of immortality; my piano playing would always be there, no matter what.